One of the traditional high points of the political year in Britain came last Tuesday afternoon, when the Chancellor of the Exchequer presented his budget proposals for the coming financial year. Also traditional was the photo-opportunity (though that word is much newer than the practice) on the steps of the Chancellor’s official residence, 11 Downing Street, when he held up the red despatch box containing the text of his speech for the media to photograph. So far as the history of words is concerned, there’s actually a good connection between the box and the speech.
The origin of our word budget is the Latin bulga, a little pouch or knapsack, which may have come from a Gaulish source that’s related to the Irish bolg, “bag”. The word turned up in English in the fifteenth century, having travelled via the French bougette, a diminutive form of bouge, “leather bag”. Its first meaning in English indeed was “pouch, wallet, bag”, and followed its French original in usually implying something made of leather. So the great traveller Thomas Coryate could write in 1611, “A certain pedlar, having a budget of small wares”, and Aphra Behn had the character Hellena say in her play The Rover in 1677: “And was it your Man Friend, that had more Darts in his Eyes than Cupid carries in a whole Budget of Arrows?”.
By the end of the sixteenth century, the word could refer to the contents of one’s budget as well as to the container itself. People frequently used this in the figurative sense of a bundle of news, or of a long letter full of news, and the word formed part of the name of several defunct British newspapers, such as the Pall Mall Budget. This was the sense that Washington Irving used in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow in 1820: “From his half itinerant life, also, he was a kind of travelling gazette, carrying the whole budget of local gossip from house to house; so that his appearance was always greeted with satisfaction” and which Thomas Jefferson meant in a letter he wrote in 1785: “I receive by Mr. Short a budget of London papers. They teem with every horror of which human nature is capable”.
The connection with finance appeared first only in 1733, as the result of a scurrilous pamphlet entitled The Budget Opened, an attack directed at Sir Robert Walpole: “And how is this to be done? Why by an Alteration only of the present Method of collecting the publick Revenues ... The Budget is opened; and our State Emperick hath dispensed his packets by his Zany Couriers through all Parts of the Kingdom” (the anonymous writer is using zany in the sense of the comical assistant of a fairground quack medicine salesman or mountebank, a decidedly unflattering comparison). The allusion was that the government minister responsible for financial affairs opened his budget, or wallet, to reveal his proposals. It probably also echoed the idiom to open one’s budget, “to speak one’s mind”, which was current then and continued to be so down into Victorian times (it turns up in Trollope, for example).
If he survived a few years, the pamphlet writer must have been chagrined to see his intended victims expropriate his satirical term and turn it into political jargon. By the 1760s, it was clearly well established, and has been the standard term ever since. But it was only in the 1880s that it began to be used as a verb in the sense of planning one’s expenditure, and the attributive meaning of “inexpensive; suitable for someone of limited means” is first recorded only in 1958.
There are two other closely-related words in English. One is bulge, which at first had the same meaning of a bag, but soon came to refer to an irregular swelling, lump, or protuberance, not a surprising change if you think of the often irregular shapes of old leather containers. The other is bilge, the lowest part of a ship’s hull. Because foul odours collected there, the word was used figuratively to mean nonsense or rubbish, a bit of British public-school slang current in the early years of this century, especially in the phrase “he talks the most utter bilge”.
So if an honourable member in the House of Commons should lose his cool and refer to the Chancellor’s budget speech as bilge he’s committing an etymological tautology as well as showing how out of touch he is.